How to Write Good Ship That Doesn’t Demean the Woman: Zoe and Wash from Firefly/Serenity

Wash and Zoe’s marriage in Firefly/Serenity has GOT to be one of the best marriages around. They’re equals, they often do mundane everyday things, many of their fights are professional, not personal. So here’s Scarlett’s guide to How to Write Good Ship That Doesn’t Demean the Woman:

#1 Introduce her as a strong, capable character with an important – and platonic – backstory with at least one other character (in this case, Mal). Maintain her existence as a strong, capable character forevermore.

#2 Show her with a life outside her relationship with her husband – in this case, the 2IC of a pirate ship. Show her as being damn good at what she does. Show her husband as having a life outside their relationship – as the extremely talented pilot of that ship.

#3 Show them doing everyday, mundane things. Bonus points for showing them in bed sleeping. No, Scarlett didn’t accidentally drop off the word together. Kudos to Whedon for being able to show a couple could share the same bed without being at it whenever such occasion arose (so to speak).

#4 Despite the fact they don’t feel the urge to rip each other’s clothes off all the time, show they are nonetheless passionate and stimulated by one another. Do something revolutionary and illustrate that there’s a middle ground between initial animal attraction and the contempt that familiarity supposedly breeds.

#5 When they fight, have them fight over a variety of issues – whose turn it is to maintain the living quarters, weather or not to have a baby, what tactic they should take in their latest mission, who has the greater power in the relationship. Bonus points if ship-related fights come across more as colleagues arguing rather then lovers arguing.

#6 On at least one occasion, demonstrate that, while they’re faithful, they’re still tempted. THEY’RE NOT BLOODY EUNUCHS JUST BECAUSE THEY’RE MARRIED! Have that temptation play so it could easily be rewritten for the other.

#7 When he dies, have her distraught with grief, but not crazed because her only reason for living is gone.

In other words, portray your married couple as passionate, faithful and loving, who disagree at times but are committed enough to find a compromise. Have them have fulfilling lives outside each other – remember, a partner is supposed to COMPLEMENT you, not COMPLETE you, as if you weren’t whole to start with. But Wash and Zoe hold particularly true because, while it’s fairly common for men to be granted this realism, it’s far rarer for women.

Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and says a lot about the people who are running our film and television industry.


  1. Nialla says

    I think another important aspect was having them already married when the show started, so we didn’t have to agonize through the whole “will they, won’t they” saga. That way lies madness, and usually character assassination for the female character in particular.

  2. Thal says

    Yes, and then once they do get married (or engaged, or whatever), that’s the last day of peace they ever have. It’s as if most writers can’t conceive of a marriage being interesting unless said marriage is in constant jeopardy. (See Luke and Lorelai, Gilmore Girls.)

  3. Nialla says

    This has become one of the main reasons I don’t like romance onscreen. You get eons of “will they, won’t they” and if they finally do, then they’re at each other’s throats, cheating on each other or something else distasteful.

    Not that such things don’t happen in real life, but sometimes I’d like a little less drama in my dramas. *g*

  4. scarlett says

    I hadn’t thought about it, but yeah, that’s another reason why they worked so well for me. They were in a settled marriage before the show started, and they didn’t become sudddenly incompatible/incapable of being faithful overnight.

    One of my fave eps concerning them is the one where Mal gets ‘married’, and she then tries to dseduce Wash, and while he has great regret that he’s not single in that particular moment, the fact is, he’s married and he’s not going to cheat on his wife. It was such a truism of longterm (monogomous) relationships that sometimes you’re tempted but often it doesn’t go beyond temptation that I think it’s a travesty it doesn’t get seen more in film and TV.

    I think if writers can’t write ship on this level, they should think about giving up ship altogether.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    I suspect they think the target audience – young, mostly unmarried men – isn’t interested in the sort of problem solving that actually happens in a marriage. And maybe they’re not, but maybe they would be if they were exposed to something other than the “Will they or won’t they / oh, they did / oh, look now they’re fighting” model for relationships.

  6. scarlett says

    I think that holds true for young people in general. I remember being in my late teens and watching Ross and Rachel doing the will they/won’t they/they have, so they fight/will they make up/will they cheat, blah blah blah. Now I think ‘they’re thirtysomethings who can’t work out what they want’.

    I loved that Zoe and Wash could be passionate, faithful, and even mundane. It was the most realistic portrayal of a commited long-term ADULT relationship I’ve seen.

  7. Maddyanne says

    Their relationship was one of the many things Fox suits didn’t like and didn’t get about the show, unfortunately. They wanted it changed, but Whedon insisted on having Zoe and Wash start married.

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    Good lord. Maddyanne, I don’t suppose you have a link laying around about that – I’d love to write an article on it.

  9. SLW2004 says

    Zoe and Wash were one of the best things about that show but I can see why the suits wouldn’t particularly like it- they probably wanted to know where the drama and angst and sexual frission would come from. Of course that ignores the fact that normal human interactions (familial, work, friendships, antagonisms) cause drama and other characters (Inara/Mal, Simon/Kaylee) can do the will they-won’t they. It always seems odd to me that shows usually only target one or two types of people and then ignore the rest. I mean, something like Friends has six characters but they’re all the same type just on varying degrees of intelligence/kookiness and none of which seem even remotely “real”. Anyone outside of that demographic has no place in that show. (Of course this last comment doesn’t relate to Firefly, because it did have the variety and the characters did seem real.)

  10. Maddyanne says

    BetaCandy, I’ve been trying to do a search at Whedonesque, but apparently the site is really busy today and I keep getting connection failure messages. If I find a specific link, I’ll post it.

    Long time lurker finally posting here. Thanks to everyone for such a great site.

  11. Jennifer Kesler says

    Thanks for looking for the link and thanks for the kind words. And welcome to the world of de-lurkers! 😉

  12. SunlessNick says

    I also like that no love-triangle reared its head: it never crossed Wash’s mind (IIRC) that Zoe’s attachment to Mal had any potentially romantic element to it; rather it had a vibe of career vs family (which is also usually stereotyped as a woman’s angst rather than a man’s).

  13. sbg says

    I also like that no love-triangle reared its head: it never crossed Wash’s mind (IIRC) that Zoe’s attachment to Mal had any potentially romantic element to it; rather it had a vibe of career vs family (which is also usually stereotyped as a woman’s angst rather than a man’s).

    Yes, it did cross his mind, but it was quickly sorted out. I don’t think they mentioned it beyond one episode.

  14. Gategrrl says

    Actually, there was a *famous* scene where Wash starts something with Zoe, who then tells the Capt that he and she have unresolved sexual tension, and to “Take me sir, take me HARD” in front of Wash – it was hilarious, and a send-up of the sexual triangle trope.

  15. Jennifer Kesler says

    And they made it very specific, like these things really are: Wash started out feeling like every time he and Zoe wanted to make a decision, they had to consult Mal, so it was like he was a third-party in the marriage. Then he worked his way up to thinking maybe there was some spark between Zoe and Mal.

    At which point Zoe turned to Mal and deadpanned, “Take me, sir. Take me hard.” Classic moment.

    Then he finally got to go on a rather horrific soldiery kind of adventure with Mal and finally understood the nature of the bond between Zoe and Mal, which is perhaps no less intense than the bond in a marriage, but is hardly a replacement for marriage.

  16. Gategrrl says

    And to sidetrack this thread even more (and back to the usual show we talk about) that’s what was devastatingly wrong with the Stargate PTB’s view on men and woman serving together – it was inevitable that the kind of bonding comrades in arms develop means sex and love is the end result (which always made me wonder how Teal’c and Daniel fit into that point of view).

    Firefly was directly *opposite* that point of view. Hence, it’s a much better show with more consistent characters and better human psychology.

  17. Jennifer Kesler says

    Yeah, the Firefly scene was offered more than once on Stargate boards to those who agreed that men and women who serve together must eventually sleep together.

    Really, I think Firefly got across exactly why sex is not so likely in that situation: most relationships can’t take two types of intense bonds (warrior and lover). If there was going to be any sex at all, I think it just be pure sex, had in intense and stupid moments, and never discussed or particularly missed again. The warrior bond emotions would remain intact, but I think converting them to lover feelings… not likely.

  18. scarlett says

    I’ve seen it done before were warrior/comrades have sex after a traumatic event, more as a release then anything else, and the next day it’s as if it was no greater release then getting drunk. Maybe that’s a bad way of putting it, but I’ve seen it done well where people sleep together, agree it was a stupid thing, move on a forget about it.

    Stargate was too lightweight and too obsessed with its OTP to ever pull this off, which is a shame, because when it’s done well, it’s done really well. Shame Firefly never had the dynamics to introduce it, because I have a feeling Whedon could have pulled it off.

  19. Paradox says

    I think it’s interesting how Whedon did actually appeal to both audiences, that is the one that was looking for a great role-model relationship (Wash and Zoe) and the one looking for the constant agonising drama of confusing emotions (Mal and Inara).

    By supplying both plots Joss is satisfying a generally entertained public while still putting across an important message of morality and equality and many other things.

    I wish this show got more exposure….

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